Think '70s Feminists Are Out of Touch? Not So Fast.

As William Kristol famously said during the primary season, "White women are a problem, that's -- you know, we all live with that."

Indeed, it seems that a lot of people have problems with white women, from our presumptive presidential nominees to feminists who are engaging in increasingly uncomfortable infighting over the implications of sexism vs. racism that emerged this year. There is a great post-primary feminist divide at the moment, and it has raised crucial questions about feminism and its origins, and why feminists and women in general remain so divided. Some of our traditional feminists like Gloria Steinem and Linda Hirshman have come under fire for sounding absolutist as they decry the rampant sexism of the campaign and express frustration over intersectionalism -- a brand of feminism that often buries gender issues in its efforts to highlight other forms of oppression.

In defense of Steinem, Hirshman and our so-called "bourgeois" members of the old feminist guard, I think their sense of urgency has less to do with this campaign and more to do with deep disappointment that the ol' "divide and conquer" thinking among women is so firmly in place. Sexism is still far behind the curve in beating the oppression game, and the feminist establishment is very worried. It is sending out calls for women to focus and adopt what I like to call "unity feminism."

These older white feminists are quickly written off as out of touch and even racist by intersectionalist feminists who say that women have a wide variety of problems to worry about, such as class, race and economics, and feminism must adopt many facets and causes to improve women's lives. Women of color have responded more specifically by saying that, frankly, they feel white women don't experience a fraction of the pain and suffering that women of color go through and it's difficult for them to relate. The overall sentiment is, "Hey, you privileged feminists, you don't get it. Move out of the way with your old-fashioned white feminism." As a reformed intersectionalist feminist, I say, not so fast.

Picture this: A young, privileged white woman grows up in an all-white, homogenous, Midwest community in the 1950s and '60s. She is beautiful and well-educated. She is middle-class, has no immediate economic worries and seems to have a bright future ahead of her.

Forty years later, she approaches retirement with permanent, debilitating brain damage from domestic violence that has robbed her of her memory and ability to care for herself for more than 20 years. Her Social Security benefits are routinely taken away on technicalities, and she doesn't qualify for Medicare. She receives a meager double-digit monthly income that isn't enough to fill a tank of gas, and she must rely on her kids for additional support. This woman happens to be my mother.

You can imagine how jarring it is for me to hear people say white women are too privileged and classist to understand the plight of less fortunate women. There is an assumption that white women are out of touch with the needs, suffering and pain of non-white women and therefore that "white women's" feminism is irrelevant. This is one of the biggest myths in feminism, and it must be dismantled or none of us will ever gain the rights, equality and safety we all deserve, and we definitely shouldn't discount Steinem and Hirshman so quickly. In fact, they have issued important warnings that we should heed.

Like many women, I too, have an eclectic and complex history of experiences. I'm ethnically Caucasian, and my family is from a small rural town in Western Europe, but I strongly identify with my Latino family by marriage, and my child is considered a person of color. I've lived in extremely varied environments -- a small town in West Africa, a rural farm in the Midwest, the projects in Manhattan, next to crack houses in Brooklyn, in a posh, gay neighborhood in Southern California, and even a temporary stint on the obscure island of Malta. I tell you this: Women have as much, if not more, in common with each other than they do with the men in their respective communities, countries and demographics. I've also come under fire from intersectionalist feminists for making statements like this. They say this type of thinking diminishes other problems that women of varied backgrounds face. I say no, all those other problems diminish the unique plight of women, who all exist under male power and oppression.

I once knew a Ghanaian woman named Ivy who lived in a small beach village on the shores of the Gulf of Guinea. She was very poor and lived hand to mouth in a way that I can never understand. She struggled with back pain from constant hard labor. And every night she cried. Not because of the work or the poverty, but because of her husband's beatings and relentless infidelities, and the frightening exposure to sexual diseases as a result.

My sister-in-law, Gloria, is a Puerto Rican woman who grew up in Spanish Harlem in the '80s at the height of the crack wars in New York. She has witnessed violence and crime in both New York and Puerto Rico that is beyond my imagination. She says white people should have done a better job of integrating her community and providing minorities with job opportunities and education at the time. These days her community is safer, she's a homeowner, and she feels that she now has more opportunities to enjoy the privileges that white people enjoy. While racism is always a peripheral concern, her most depressing problems continue to be with men. She's constantly afraid her philandering husband will leave her for another woman, and she struggles with the misogyny and disrespect she sees in her teenage boys.

As a screenwriter, I've rubbed shoulders with some of the most famous people in the entertainment industry and hung out in glamorous parties with glamorous white people. And wouldn't you know it -- even rich, famous white women in Hollywood are consistently degraded, humiliated and abused by the men in their lives.

Another myth about white women is that they only have to deal with misogyny from white men and therefore don't have as many problems with sexism as women of color. This belief is a farce in post-modern times. Ask any white woman who has endured daily street harassment or the multitudes of white women who work in the sex industry; they can assure you that men of all classes, races and nationalities are united in the pleasure they take in seeing all types of women being sexually humiliated. If that fact alone doesn't unite white women and women of color, I don't know what will.

Still not convinced of women's common condition? Then let's cut to the heart of oppression -- crime.

Since the Civil Rights movement, hate crimes, which the FBI defines as crimes against individuals based on nationality, race, disability or sexual orientation, have fallen to extremely low levels: There were only three confirmed hate-related homicides nationwide in 2004, for example. However, gender-based crime -- not included in the U.S. description of hate crimes -- continues to plague women in the United States and all over the world at alarming levels. According to the World Health Organization, all violence against women is committed almost exclusively by men. Sex trafficking and forced prostitution are on the rise, and female infanticide is still widely practiced. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than a quarter of U.S. women are still being raped. With the exception of Native American women, the percentage of rapes per capita of white women and women of color are almost identical -- 18 percent of all white women and 19 percent of all women of color. Of the thousands of women killed each year in the United States, roughly 50 percent are killed because of their gender. The United Nations reports that almost 50 percent of the world's population of women will suffer from gender-based violence in her lifetime.

Still, I often hear women of color say that because they've suffered from a considerable amount of racism from white women, it's hard to rally with them under the multilayered mechanics of oppression. That is fair enough, and unity feminism is speaking to racist white women as well. I say to them, "Stop identifying with your oppressor's racist values. You have more in common with your sisters of color than the man who beats you, physically or figuratively, each night."

In post-modern times, the single most destructive force in many women's lives is male hatred and oppression of women. I think it is this bigger picture that probably frustrates feminist leaders like Steinem and Hirshman. One major reason why women continue to be oppressed is because they continue to place other causes before their own. Intersectionalist feminism is a nice idea, if all the other intersecting ideas didn't constantly take priority over women's rights. Besides, traditional feminism believes that in order to solve the rest of the world's problems, women should be empowered first, not the other way around. The United Nations says that the fastest and best means of advancing human development is done by investing in women and girls, first and foremost. This is the backbone of feminism also, and our "out of touch" white feminist leaders simply ask that we not lose sight of our mission.

Some names of individuals have been changed to protect their privacy.


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